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Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”
A Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. (Photo: dfid/Flickr)

A Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. (Photo: dfid/Flickr)

War is perhaps humanity’s most interruptive force. And one of the very first things war tends to interrupt is a young person’s education. That’s happening on a mass scale right now in Syria, as well as in the diaspora of Syrian refugees, according to a recent study out of the University of California-Davis and the Institute of International Education.

Almost three million Syrians have been displaced to other countries. Lebanon has become the top destination for those trying to escape the mayhem—which so far has killed more than 190,000 people. While there’s a perception that refugees come from impoverished parts of society, it’s not just poor, rural Syrians that are fleeing their homeland’s civil war: “Middle-class families have joined the exodus as well,” the study explains, “including a high number of 14- to 24-year-olds whose education and training have been disrupted by the war.”

"Despite pre-conflict Syria’s rough gender parity between females and male attendance at universities, male enrollment in Lebanon post conflict appears to stand at a much higher rate."

The researchers wanted to gauge how three years of violent conflict is affecting young Syrian refugees in terms of a lost education. To find out, they conducted focus groups with 75 college-age Syrian refugees in Lebanon, including enrolled students, as well as those hoping to enroll. The study’s subjects were in three of Lebanon’s major areas—Beirut, Tripoli, and Biqa’a Valley—and represented Syria’s ethnic and religious diversity. The team also interviewed Lebanese university administrators and policymakers.

After assessing the data from their interviews, the researchers concluded that Syrians between the ages of 18 and 24 are at highest risk of losing access to education. They also found that the vast majority of Syrian youth in Lebanon are not pursuing higher education at all. And for those who are, many are facing serious threats, including poverty, unemployment, language barriers, stigmatization, fears of violence, and feelings of isolation. These problems also affect older Syrian scholars, who “are unable to secure academic work at Lebanese universities without external support from international organizations.”

Encouragingly, the study highlighted case studies of non-profits working to improve Syrian students’ prospects, like the Lebanese Association for Scientific Research’s scholarship program for Syrian refugees. These projects are successful on a local level, the study found, because they can nimbly and creatively respond to problems. Still, the authors note, larger-scale support is desperately needed, especially in the form of more merit- and need-based scholarships for Syrian refugees who want to go to college.

It’s worth noting that being displaced by war might be more likely to ruin a female’s chance at an education than a male’s: “Despite pre-conflict Syria’s rough gender parity between females and male attendance at universities,” the authors write, “male enrollment in Lebanon post conflict appears to stand at a much higher rate.” This might be in part because young men “indicated that they were pursuing a university education because it grants them the added benefit of deferment. They would otherwise be required to serve in the Syrian military.”

Whatever the motivation is for Syrians to go to college abroad, the paper’s authors argue, it’s important that they have the opportunity to do so.

Rosie Spinks contributed reporting.